Consider the game of chess. Under international rules, if a player’s mobile phone makes any sound during a tournament game, he or she loses immediately. Although the rule has come to be seen as a protection against cheating, its origin lies in a concern about distracting the other player. The sound interferes with clarity of thought.
If the complexities of the chess board require undistracted attention, how much more so the complexities of, for example, economic and fiscal policy? To reason our way to reliable answers, we need the time and space to think. Otherwise, we cannot really listen and reason but only react — and when we react rather than listen, the possibilities for genuine public conversation are debased. The reason politics nowadays seems to be all about yelling is that a different politics would require time and space, and peace and quiet.
Hannah Arendt, in The Life of the Mind, puts it this way: “Thinking is always out of order, interrupts all ordinary activities and is interrupted by them.” Yet we need to do it. Socrates, she reminds us, didn’t always have the answers, and wasn’t always interested in dialogue. Again and again, Arendt says, we see him going off alone to think.
All of which brings us back to the reporter and his error about 2,000 years of Latin American Catholicism. He was working without a script, reporting live in the midst of a crowd. His job was to fill the air with commentary, and (in Catholic terms) there was no time for the intellect to reflect upon the words that suggested themselves before the will gave consent to speak them.
That’s our problem in a nutshell. We live in a world that leaves us little time to contemplate.
We are busy people. Pursuing our thoughts in silent contemplation takes an investment of time that few can spare. Yet all of us need to patch together what bits of reflection we can. If we lack the time to seek out silent spaces, we lack the time to think clearly; and if we lack the time to think clearly, we lack the time to do democracy well.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.”